An English novel, a Confederate general, and an heir

by Jack Neely

When he came to America in 1842, Charles Dickens had been appalled at the pig-chasing, tobacco-spitting roughness of New York City. We can only guess what he would have thought of Knoxville.

Dickens never dropped by, but he had more influence on Knoxville than most mayors have. Whether he would have liked us or not, we liked him—his books, at least. There's circumstantial evidence that Knoxville began celebrating an often-forgotten European holiday in a big way just because we read a Dickens story called "A Christmas Carol." After its publication in 1844, Knoxville celebrated Christmas more consistently than ever before.

Another popular Dickens book came out in 1852, and a wealthy young Knoxville man named Robert Armstrong christened his stylish new West Knoxville home by its title. He called it Bleak House.

It's hard to know whether Armstrong and Dickens would have gotten along. Dickens was an abolitionist; Armstrong owned slaves. But then, when the Civil War came along, Dickens became a distant Confederate sympathizer; Armstrong was reportedly a Union man.

The grandson of two Knoxville pioneer heroes, Armstrong himself was a soft-living romantic. Attended by servants, Armstrong lived off his inheritance and dabbled in banking, politics—and, more than anything else, art. He also dreamed of his "beau ideal"—the perfect woman.

In the early 1850s, he'd taken an indulgent year-long tour of America, from Texas to Niagara Falls to Washington, D.C. We still have his fascinatingly vivid Private Journal and Jottings Down from that trip. En route, he was dismayed to note that New York state was every bit as beautiful as home, but New Yorkers' houses showed "cultivation and wealth so far in advance" that they "made me sigh for similar things for East Tennessee."

That sigh may have influenced his care in designing his home on Kingston Pike. It was not larger but fancier than his dad's house down the road, with a riverfront porch and, on the east side, a rare three-story tower with tall, narrow Gothic windows.

"Bleak House" isn't a moniker most folks would pick for a home to raise a young family in. It was only a little like the huge country manor described in the new Dickens novel. It shared some of its endearing eccentricity, like the stepped-up-and-down second floor. And that tower, maybe.

The house was maybe five years old that November when Confederates under General Longstreet were advancing rapidly along Kingston Pike. When a middle-aged man in a gray uniform and a big black beard tied his horse to a stake in the front yard, Armstrong's wife Louisa let him in the house. Armstrong made himself scarce.

General James Longstreet was famous as "Lee's War Horse," but here he wasn't working for Lee. He and his First Corps, veterans of Gettysburg, were under strange orders from Braxton Bragg, the nervous commander of the western campaign. Longstreet's mission was to re-seize Knoxville, abandoned only two months ago. Some think Longstreet accepted the unexpected Knoxville assignment mainly to get away from Bragg, who was busy losing Chattanooga. After three trying weeks trooping through an East Tennessee November, dealing with rivalrous officers and uncooperative citizens, Longstreet was finally in sight of the old capital Knoxville.

Longstreet was likely attracted to this house for its location near the front lines, its unusually thick brick walls—and its tower. With a third-floor tower from which you could see the city itself, this solid house overlooking the river must have seemed ideal. Longstreet posted snipers in that tower while, on the ground floor, Longstreet and his old schoolmate and right-hand man Gen. Lafayette McLaws set up shop. Here they unrolled maps and made one of the worst plans in their careers.

It was to be an all-out frontal assault on a nearly impregnable city. Before dawn on November 29, Longstreet sent these Gettysburg veterans straight into an icy hell of tripwires, an impossibly deep dry moat, and a barrage of gunfire and grenades. In the single 20-minute Battle of Fort Sanders, more than 100 Confederate soldiers were killed, with several hundred more missing or wounded.

In this house, James Longstreet recognized the magnitude of his failure, compounded by news of Bragg's loss of Chattanooga. After Knoxville and his two weeks at Bleak House, Longstreet fired his old friend McLaws and offered to resign his commission. "If this field is to be held with a view to a future operation," he wrote as he fled Knoxville, "I earnestly desire that some other officer be sent to the command." Historians call it the low point of Longstreet's command. Longstreet might have named this Bleak Housea even if he'd never heard of Charles Dickens.

Robert Armstrong reappeared as Longstreet left and returned to his gentlemanly life of music and painting. While most of Knoxville tried to forget the war, patching up bullet holes and filling in trenches, Armstrong, the romantic, preserved his battle-scarred Bleak House with its bloody tower, the craters sprayed across the east side, the bullet hole in the staircase, the cannonball hole in the living room. Suddenly it had more Dickensian eccentricities than it had when it was built. They were all intact when an elderly Louisiana insurance man named Longstreet visited the place in 1890.

Today, maintained by the United Daughters of the Confederacy, Bleak House is one of the nation's most vividly preserved architectural relics of the Civil War. But there are questions about the long-term future of Bleak House. Watch this space.